Safari is a living experience; we each take away from it something a little different. For some, the grandeur of its large mammals shocks and awes, for others the mighty vastness of a balanced wilderness strikes at the soul. Small connections can blow up into life-changing events and relations to the lives of wild animals can bring about a humbling realisation.
Often the recognised character and individuality of animals hits home the strongest, and is felt most commonly with leopards. I believe this is the case as we observe these stunning animals fairly regularly and quite often know their history as far back as birth. Their solitary nature makes them more clearly identifiable as we witness their behaviour changes and reactions to different conditions, as well as see them face challenges. One leopard in particular, captured my intrigue early on in my time here at Londolozi and I still reminisce his existence and dominance, today.
The Gowrie male first appeared in the Sabi Sands around 2011. Judging by his size, he is estimated to have been born around 2005/6.
Prior to working at Londolozi I frequented the daily blog on more than a daily basis. It amazed, fascinated and excited me beyond any other web read, and further drove my desire to follow a passion and work in this environment. During this time I saw many beautiful photographs and interesting write ups about this male leopard known as the Gowrie male. Although there were more often posts about the famous Camp Pan and Marthly males at that time, something stood strong with the less prominent, under-toned and low key Gowrie male. Perhaps it was his quieter nature, or his avoidance of the limelight. Perhaps it was his satisfactorily fame-less demeanour. Or perhaps it was his eyes.
Once I did start working at Londolozi there were a million places and individual animals I wished to see. Coupled with training, working and exploring there were seemingly a million more things to do and experience and I took each sighting as it came. But in the back of the mind I always remembered this Gowrie male who I had connected with, just from a few photographs and several rangers’ descriptive words.
Of course, I learnt all about this male, as well as most other leopards around the property, in order to do my job… But I had still never seen him. He remained just that; knowledge. I knew his origin, his history, memorable milestones during his upbringing and great stories from his journey to dominance in the north of Londolozi. But I couldn’t say I really knew him. This was the case for ages. I began questioning his existence and thought maybe he was just a myth all along… Somehow, the Camp Pan and Marthly males were the only dominant males around and a false rival was fabricated to keep the readers’ attention; a foil figure thought up to have different behaviours and ridiculously large, round orange eyes. Every so often I would hear on the radio that he had been spotted in the north, and every time I seemed to be deep in the south of the property with no chance of getting there. On three separate occasions when I happened to be nearer, he vanished between the time he was found by another ranger and when I excitedly arrived on the scene. I couldn’t believe my bad luck! This continued for a little over a year.
But then, one cool morning in late summer, as the leaves were turning to warm hues, we were graced with his powerful presence standing tall in the road soon after crossing the Sand River. From what I remember, and this was probably not the case, he was actually emitting golden rays which lit the surrounding crest… Pity I never got that photograph. I knew straight away, this was him, this was the Gowrie male. His aura superceded my happiness as he marched across the clearing, scent marking as he went, before rasping off a territorial call and disappearing down into the river system. After a year’s wait I was not disappointed.
What followed seemed to be an unintentional love affair with this individual as we happened to find him countless more times in the subsequent weeks, which included mating behaviour, feeding activity on the ground and up in trees, dominance displays and incredible views of him atop granite boulders, often too high up or far away for a photograph! These incredible sightings we shared with him and moments of inspiration from observing him control his territory was soon ended with his sudden disappearance and eventual presumption of death; unfortunately a common occurrence in the predator kingdom.
That short period in my world, revealed so much for me and helped me to better understand a male leopard’s reign amongst other powerful figures. His presence became deeply felt for me, particularly as on the surface his existence was dull and insignificant, but by seeing him once, a hidden world of success and confidence flooded my vision. It was only then did I realise the power of that initial connection to this nearly mystical figure.
The Gowrie male’s stubborn persistence and ruthless achievements in the leopard world were always known, but needed to be witnessed for someone like me to fully understand them. And all it took was a desire to know more and the initial, lucky glimpse to set that wheel in motion. An unforgettable and forever cherished journey to really knowing.